After seven years of architecture school, eventually it comes time to ask oneself what architecture is, even. Is there a distinction between building and architecture? Is architecture a utilitarian or aesthetic practice? Does there need to be an architect for there to be architecture? And why even do architects get in the weeds with these questions?
To answer the question of what architecture is, even, it is helpful to conjure a mind that stands outside the debate, that is uncorrupted by the studying or practice of architecture or by bitchy british write-ups taking down starchitects; a mind that has never before tried to answer the question and that is unencumbered by the constellation of cultural discourse. The question, in short, requires a space alien.
I am not such a mind—I am already ruined by architecture—but I hope to stand outside myself for long enough to present a believable representation of a non-human observer of life on Earth, a visitor that can sense as we sense to some degree, but that does not need what we need to survive or enjoy life.
Upon approach, the visitor comes to understand that Earth is infested with humans, completely taken over. There is not a place on the Earth that does not host some artifact of human occupation. Cities merge one into the next, forming rings across continents, roads reaching like colonizing strands across the fields, all of which grow one of the same twenty plants. Zooming into the cities, the visitor would see that they are composed of hard shells arrayed in a semi-regular lattice, some forming stacks several shells high, some pressing toward the edges of the crystalline structure. Each shell contains one or several humans—they use them for their daily dormancy phase, to maintain their temperatures within a narrow range, to collect various items made from metals and organic fibers, and to oxidize materials before ingesting them.
If the visitor knew of mycelium or coral before the visit, it would perhaps recognize analogous structures and corresponding methods for aggregating units in the way the city sends out its feelers to grow or in the way humans stack their non-living exoskeletons on top of one another. And this is the first level at which the visitor conceptualizes what humans build: as a prosthesis that increases the odds of survival, a biological apparatus for resisting the stresses of weather and competition for resources.
But then the visitor begins to notice further texture and detail, small differences in color, shape, and size; some of the buildings have considerably more complexity, which even given the humans’ dextrous hands and knack for inventing, add quite considerably to the timeline of completion of a building. It’s as if these particular buildings, the ornate ones, want to communicate something, perhaps nothing other than to display the power of their conceivers to organize other humans and compel them to spend their time on texture rather than producing nourishment or shelter per se.
The differences in color, shape, and texture seem to be organized across time as well, organized into discrete moments that respond to the previous moments. It seems clear then that the style of color, shape, and texture encodes information—whether representing a power relation or more overtly through the representation of objects or sounds, a language.
This linguistic level of architecture, then, encompases many aspects of form, of layout, of non-essential decoration, and even extending to the placement of buildings in relation to one another.
But there is a level to understanding architecture between what is necessary for survival and what is necessary for communication, and it seems to affect the human organism in a way both influenced by evolution and beyond biology, both reflective of rational thought but unarticulated. When the human is in a space, the regular spacing of columns, the balance of volumes, the vastness or smallness of a room in relation to another produce some qualitative experience in the mind, not easily put into words.
This affective response to organizational principles such as symmetry might be an outgrowth of certain cognitive principles necessary for survival—easily predictable space allows the brain to focus more on potential threats, and thus is perceived as more harmonious and balanced, safer. But a regular order also shows the influence of a human mind exerted against inert material, and thus reflects a syntax without overt meaning.
One aspect of human life perhaps the alien would never be able to understand—beauty. Where is the aesthetic in architecture? I would argue that it exists across all three levels of architecture: there is something aesthetically captivating about the complexity and vastness of the human habitat; there exists the capacity to decode progress in the alternation of styles; but most of all, the aesthetic resides in the affective space where it appears that it is that which makes us most human—the capacity to bring order to chaos (this has been argued since ancient times (that we are vicegerents, in the creator’s image, etc))—is also that which helps us transcend simply existing for the purpose of existing. It is the imprint of the mind on the raw brutality and complexity of nature that truly renders the sublime.